Ashdown ran away from telling the harsh truth

Share
Related Topics
The Liberal Democrats love their leader. There is nothing synthetic about the rapture with which Paddy Ashdown's party received his speech yesterday. The hall was packed. The minute-by-minute applause spontaneous. The party basking in the leader's own flattery of it. Even as he magnanimously distributed compliments to those who ran the election campaign, the faithful sat secure in the unshakeable belief that he is overwhelmingly the party's greatest electoral asset. A few of his younger lieutenants have this week have jockeyed, with absurd optimism, for the benefit of the gallery. But it's in the empty hope of filling a vacancy which for now doesn't remotely exist.

Paddy is entitled to this adulation. But it also sets a yardstick by which to judge what he says to his party. Supremely popular among his own tribe as he is, Ashdown can afford to take liberties which might not be available to another leader. A William Hague, his position precarious almost before his leadership is completely under way, apparently dares not speak truths about the reasons for his party's defeat. Ashdown, riding on an electoral success, unchallenged for nine years at the head of an expanding party, can get away with a great deal more.

So this is one yardstick by which to assess the well rehearsed message that Ashdown was telling home truths to his party yesterday. The other is the disjunction exposed in Eastbourne this week between where Ashdown wants to take the Liberal Democrats and where they want to be. Don Foster, the education spokesman, does not make the ludicrous claim that the Blair betrayed the Labour government by not bringing primary school class sizes down to 30, four months after taking office, because he believes it. He does it because he thinks it is what the party wants to hear. Charles Kennedy is an intelligent enough politician to know the rank absurdity of suggesting that the Lib Dems should set about the task of replacing the Conservatives as the main opposition to Labour. It's a claim which defies history, wishing away the enduring right in British politics. It founders on the truth that of for every 10 seats where the Liberal Democrats are second, seven are Tory and three are Labour. Kennedy doesn't think those seats are remotely winnable by making the Government the Liberal Democrats' principal opponents. Nor does he think for a second, as he appeared to imply this week, that coalition with Labour is not the utterly inevitable consequence of electoral reform. He just thinks they are arguments that will appeal to the large proportion of activists who are much more interested in winning seats from Labour on local councils than in increasing their power at Westminster. Assuming therefore that the Kennedys and Fosters are judging their party correctly, Ashdown, seeking to condition his party towards what it needs to do it if it to realise the holy grail of electoral reform has both a big problem and the power to do a lot about it.

It's hard to give him more than two cheers. He spoke, albeit a little opaquely, of the "risks" he was prepared to take to maximise the party's influence. He warned, rightly, that the party will have to compromise some of its most cherished constitutional goals if it is to make progress in the famous joint Cabinet committee. He was careful, despite some unrepentant and generalised New Labour-bashing, to affirm his belief that Blair is "serious about changing the culture of our politics." In a gentle but unmistakeable rebuff to Kennedy, he derided the notion that the Liberal Democrats should be content to be a "conventional opposition". He warned against "an excessive concern for our purity." He eschewed the "politics of the tribe".

So far so good. It was, in the end, an appeal for the Liberal Democrats to grow up. But was it enough? Did the audience understand it in their hearts as well as their heads? Within two hours of Ashdown's speech the conference did two apparently trivial things which rather graphically suggest otherwise. First, in a move inspired by little more than the self- interest of the ubiquitous Liberal Democrat councillors, the conference reaffirmed its opposition to the idea of a directly elected London mayor.With one vote, scarcely noted in the warm afterglow of Ashdown rhetoric, the party, described in that rhetoric as the true reformers, leading on a laggardly Labour Party, set itself against one of the most exciting constitutional innovations of the new government. And even if the party's policy were right, is it sensible? Are the Liberal Democrats really going to campaign for a No vote in the referendum on an elected mayor - and in the process look even more antideluvian than the Conservative Party? Blair overcame similarly entrenched municipal opposition to make the mayor policy. Ashdown, in his speech yesterday, didn't even try. Immediately afterwards the party reaffirmed its commitment to the single transferable vote. There is not the merest ghost of a chance that STV will become the agreed system of PR. At the moment the party will be lucky if it achieves the "alternative vote" before the next election - very lucky considering that on the 1997 vote shares it would have doubled their seats in Westminster.

It's easy to say that doesn't matter, that in the big grown-up village of Westminster everybody who knows anything knows that Ashdown appreciates that all these policies, from an impressively huge list of spending commitments to an absolutely unattainable form of PR don't mean anything. But Blair, whom Ashdown genuinely admires, rather more than he let on to his conference yesterday, has shown there is another way. That it's not just the leader who matters; the party has to change too. It's unwise for Labour politicians to patronise the Liberal Democrats, the best of whom would grace a Blair Cabinet, as the Prime Minister knows. But it just as unwise for the Liberal Democrats to patronise Labour. When Ashdown rightly congratulates his party for their successes, and then harangues Labour for its tax and spending policies, he would do well to remind it that quite a lot of those successes were because Labour supporters switched to Liberal Democrat candidates to help to return a Labour government committed to precisely those policies. Ashdown's speech was a step in the right direction. But telling unpalatable truths, as Blair has shown, is part of the new politics. Ashdown will have to do more than he did yesterday.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star